By Sarah Galer
Photo by Dan Dry

We see the University opening itself in new ways and embracing the notion that the arts are as vital and important as any of the disciplines that they’ve focused on for all these years.”
—Richard Gray

The University of Chicago is announcing the creation of the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, a central component of plans to expand the role of the arts on campus.

The center is named for Richard and Mary L. Gray, in recognition of their support of the University and dedication to the arts. Their $5 million gift to the University will support the center’s goals of enhancing education, promoting collaboration, and fostering creative innovation at the intersection of academic inquiry and artistic practice. In addition, the Gray Center will house a new fellowship program for visiting artists and scholars, with support from a four-year, $1.35 million award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Gray Center will create a forum for distinctive and often unexpected collaborations. For example, the four pairings of practitioners and theorists during the 2011-12 academic year will include architect Jamie Carpenter and UChicago physicist Sidney Nagel, who plan to investigate the physics and aesthetics of light.

“Engaging creative scholarship and practice is a hallmark of the arts at the University of Chicago, and this generous gift will provide many new avenues for such collaborations,” says University President Robert J. Zimmer. “We are grateful to Richard and Mary Gray, whose commitment to the University and deep appreciation for the arts has helped us to realize our vision for this new initiative.”

By design, the center will engage faculty from across the University and across disciplines, says Martha Roth, dean of the Division of the Humanities.

“This new center will integrate the arts more fully into the academic enterprise, and it will allow the University to play an even more vital part within artistic practice in Chicago and beyond,” Roth says.

Forming an artistic and scholarly vision

Prof. David Levin, a dramaturge and scholar of German literature, opera, film, and performance, has been named the inaugural director of the Gray Center.

“David has devoted his career to bridging the worlds of art and academia, through his breadth of scholarship and his active role in artistic practice. He is a fitting choice for director of this ambitious, new program,” says Larry Norman, Deputy Provost for the Arts.

Levin says he believes that the Gray Center can be instrumental in transcending traditional boundaries separating the arts and academia, but it can also challenge participants to investigate and challenge the boundaries themselves.

“If we are successful, the Center will become a working laboratory,” Levin says, noting that the Center’s pursuits will not just be academic and artistic, but also structural. “True experimentation in art and theory will be our aim, appreciating the value of failures as well as celebrated successes.”

An enduring commitment to the arts

The Gray Center will reflect Richard and Mary Gray’s commitment to the arts and arts education, without which they both say they “could not survive.”

Richard Gray, a renowned art dealer and collector, has been active in many units at the University, including serving as a past chairman of the Smart Museum of Art’s board of governors. Mary Gray, who was awarded a master’s in art history from UChicago in 1978 and has authored two books on art in Chicago, also has served as a docent at the Oriental Institute.

They hope that the Gray Center will give UChicago scholars and artists license to pursue new ideas that energize and challenge—as the arts have always done for the Grays.

“It is wonderful that the University continues to grow and change and try new things,” Mary Gray says. “I find that very exciting.”

Richard Gray adds, “We see the University opening itself in new ways and embracing the notion that the arts are as vital and important as any of the disciplines that they’ve focused on for all these years.”

Fellows will span many fields

With help from the Mellon Foundation award, the center will engage scholars in integrating arts practice more fully into their research and teaching, while spurring practicing artists to engage fully with the intellectual life of the University.

The first group of Mellon fellows at the Center, in addition to Jamie Carpenter and Sidney Nagel, will include cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who will join Prof. Hillary Chute to develop a critical language for nonfiction comics; and choreographer and dancer Claudia Lavista, who will join music composition students and faculty including Profs. Martha Feldman, Augusta Read Thomas, and Shulamit Ran as well as scholars across the University to prepare a new site-specific work. Through dance, music and visual components they will explore the tension between public and private—the visible and invisible.

In addition, renowned playwright Tony Kushner will visit the University as part of an exploratory fellowship under the aegis of the Court Theatre during its production of Kushner’s Angels in America. Along with faculty from across the University, he will explore the possibilities for new dramatic projects.

The residential fellows each will spend up to three months at UChicago working with their University-based partners, resulting in a collaborative course offering, campus events, performances, and colloquia that benefit students, other arts programs on campus, and art lovers across the city.

"I am thrilled that the inaugural class of Mellon fellows at the University of Chicago will find its home at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry,” says Don Michael Randel, president of the Mellon Foundation and past president of the University of Chicago. “The Mellon Foundation shares the same commitment to exploring the dynamic relationship between arts practice, scholarship, and the broader life of the university."

Originally published on June 6, 2011.